What they said: silence speaks volumes at Saudi forum

Published November 1, 2019, 10:22 AM

by AJ Siytangco

By Agence France-Presse

The third annual Saudi investment conference in Riyadh has drawn thousands of delegates, in a sign Saudi is emerging from the shadow of critic Jamal Khashoggi’s murder last October.

Here is a pick of quotes from the final day of the meeting, attended by Wall Street titans and heads of state:

Delegates attend the Future Investment Initiative (FII) forum at the King Abdulaziz Conference Centre in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh, on October 30, 2019.  (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)
Delegates attend the Future Investment Initiative (FII) forum at the King Abdulaziz Conference Centre in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh, on October 30, 2019.

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Most notable on the final day of the Future Investment Initiative was what was not said.

The event is the brainchild of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman but for the first time in its three-year history, he did not address the gathering.

Until the last minutes of the conference, organizers kept hinting that the young leader, who once took the same stage to attack extremism and promise openness, would make an appearance.

As journalists waited, government TV went live, raising the possibility of a late arrival. But the doors closed without a speech from the de facto ruler.

In 2017, the Saudi strongman used the forum to declare a new future for the conservative kingdom and plugged the launch of a new $500 billion (450 billion euro) megacity along the Red Sea coastline.

One year later, he denounced on stage the “repulsive” murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which took place in Saudi’s Istanbul consulate.

He vowed justice would prevail, in his first public comments on a case that badly hurt his image as a reformist.

‘We hate referendums’ 

Former prime ministers were in abundance at the conference’s final session — David Cameron from Britain sat with Australia’s Kevin Rudd and Matteo Renzi from Italy.

“I’m sorry we didn’t meet, I’d just lost the election,” Rudd joked when Renzi mentioned that he had attended his first G20 summit in Australia in 2014.

“I lost after, don’t worry,” Renzi replied, referring to his 2016 resignation after a resounding defeat in a referendum to change the constitution.

“And we cannot discuss… referendums because myself and David, we hate referendums,” the Italian politician said to laughter from the audience.

Cameron himself resigned after the shock “leave” outcome of Britain’s referendum on EU membership; he had campaigned for “remain”, but the public narrowly backed departure.

Don’t mention Aramco 

When the forum opened on Tuesday, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman raised laughs by saying he was not going to talk about the looming stock market debut of state-owned oil giant Aramco, the world’s most profitable company.

“I hate to disappoint the media. I am not going to talk about OPEC… and I am not going to talk about the (Aramco) IPO,” he said.

But it appears he wasn’t joking. Despite the mammoth initial public offering dominating Saudi economic news for months, the issue was barely mentioned in Riyadh this week and it was the topic of none of the many sessions held over the three days.

The presence of many of the world’s top bankers though hinted at behind-the-scenes discussions on the potential windfall from what would be the biggest stock market listing in history.

Aramco was expected to launch the first part of a two-stage IPO earlier in October, but the process has been delayed, reportedly due to the crown prince’s dissatisfaction with the valuation of the firm, which had been hoped to reach $2 trillion.

The public offering will now happen on December 11 on the Riyadh stock market, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television has said.


Saudi Arabia has the Middle East’s biggest economy and it is the world’s top oil producer, but it craves credibility on the global stage as it rehabilitates its image after the Khashoggi murder undermined its diplomatic alliances.

As the investment summit closed, the kingdom looked ahead to 2020 when it is due to host the G20 — the biggest event it has ever staged and the first to be held in an Arab country.

Riyadh wants to focus on developing countries “and how to help them and how to push the goals of sustainable developments,” minister of state Ibrahim al-Assaf said.

“In the case of Saudi Arabia I believe that one of the most important issues is to deal with empowering women and youth.”

The crown prince has embarked on a series of landmark changes including allowing women to drive, but other restrictive policies remain in place and critics pushing for faster social change have ended up in jail.